Roman Polanski’s debut feature Knife in the Water (1962) is the film that made him an international figure in the cinematic world—and ironically, still stands as his only Polish-language feature, since it led to his depature for France and then to British cinema. The appeal of the film—a simple three-character story designed for getting the most out of a very small budget—is obvious even today. The movie is an economical exercise in the growing sexual and socio-economic tension that takes place in one afternoon when a middle-aged sportswriter and his much younger wife pick up a hitchhiking student and then invite him along for a day on their sailboat. The impetus of it all comes from the aging writer’s desire to show off how much more worldly and knowledgeable he is than the young man—and what results from that.
The film is similar in some ways to Polanski’s second British film, Cul-de-sac (1966), in that it places its characters in a confined setting and then forces them to interact. The difference is that Cul-de-sac adds characters and a vein of dark humor that is largely absent here. Still, the similarity between this first work and it—and to even later films—attests to the idea that Polanski was from the very onset, a filmmaker with a singular and disturbing vision. His is clearly a cinema of obsession.